As the grieving shifts into reflection, we head back down the familiar path of arguments about gun control. With America’s horrible history of the slaughter of innocents in public settings, many protest over-easy access to guns. Others counter that the best defense is to be armed and trained in the use of firearms.
But this debate – though it is so polarized around entrenched and inflexible positions that maybe it’s not really a debate – seems to have no end in sight. In his show on June 18th – just over two months ago – after the killing of nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., Jon Stewart said,
“I didn’t do my job today, so I apologize. I’ve got nothing for you in terms of jokes and sounds, because of what happened in South Carolina. Maybe if I wasn’t nearing the end of the run, or if this wasn’t such a common occurrence, maybe I could have pulled out the spiral, but I didn’t. So, I honestly have nothing.”
This was perhaps Stewarts darkest moment, a time in which he gave up to hopelessness. At the time I felt his despair around this country’s experience of racism, but I wonder if there is something new here too, another reason for such despondence. Are we living in the midst of an escalating epidemic of high-visibility murder-suicides perpetrated to achieve publicity of a personal or political agenda? Is our willingness – our urge – to grant celebrity to murderers (going back to Charles Manson) not just a part of, but maybe at the root of the problem?
This would be very worrying, but with what appears to be a trend at the nexus of terrorism, of our nation’s cult of fame, and of the known psychology of copy-cat suicides, I fear there is much to support this fear.
The Role of Terrorism
Let’s begin with terrorism.
Terrorism is defined by Merriam Webster as, ” the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal… the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion”. And the US Government has enshrined a definition of terrorism in the US Code, Section 2331-2 as activities which, “Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law,” and “Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping”.
In short terrorism is the use of violence on a person or persons in order to intimidate and affect the behavior of a larger population or a government. To accomplish this the goal of a terrorist is to make their violence as public and at the same time as deeply personal as possible. The beheading of a young man or young woman on YouTube or Twitter is guaranteed to go global within minutes and to horrify. But the impact of the horror goes beyond the violence and brutality of the act; it rests on the implicit recognition of you, the viewer, that the person beheaded – an innocent who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – could be your neighbor, your friend, your son or daughter.
It is the technology of television and the internet, coupled with our insatiable appetite for the dramatic, the novel, the immediate, the urgent, that has given the terrorist a new platform and enormous power. The reason we are afraid of ISIS and are giving the Middle East such political prominence domestically is the disproportionate power of such imagery. It is morally repugnant and grotesque, but it is politically brilliant, at once gaining power and recognition for its cause, and through that drving support from a militant minority.
Fifteen Minutes of Fame
In the program for a 1968 exhibition of his work at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, Andy Warhol wrote, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. In doing so he gave birth to the popular motif, not just that everyone has the opportunity for short-lived media publicity or celebrity, but that everyone deserves it.
It’s always hard to see one’s self from the inside, but our American cult of celebrity is somewhat special in global terms. It manifests most obviously in the hero-worship of musicians, Hollywood stars, and sports stars, but this is just the tip of the ice-berg. It shows up in the business world in the staggering compensation – unrivaled elsewhere in the world – of the compensation paid to hired senior management (as distinct from business owners such as Gates, Ellison, etc.) and in the celebrity status granted to such specialists as Red Adair, the man singled out in 1991 to extinguish the oil-well fires in Kuwait. And it shows up in our personal lives in our desire to find, “the best physician”, “the best litigator”, “the best [fill in the blank!]” to serve us in our time of need. We seem to always be singling out the special, the best, the most famous….and the corollary is that we are culturally shaped to seek celebrity and fame for ourselves, as well as for those closest to us.
Marrying Fame with Terrorism
Terrorism is designed to promote a political cause, to divert the attention of a government – of a nation – towards a political goal, for example to remove forces of occupation. Cultures that perpetrate terrorism are cultures in which the individual is of limited prominence. Most obviously today we are looking at the suicide terrorist, an individual who has surrendered their ego to the idea that their act of sacrifice for the greatest good will grant them salvation beyond this world. But even outside the suicide terrorist, terrorism is from a culture that has nothing to do with the individual. This lack of ego is ingrained into the very fabric of terrorist organizations which are decentralized, organized in fragmented cells, and designed to have no central locus of power.
What does terrorism look like in a world centered on the ego?
Terrorism in this world would use acts of violence – in particular the taking of innocent and unrelated life – to give prominence to the power and ideals, the pain and suffering of the individual. Beyond that it would use such violence as a means just deliver fame to the individual. This could come from the loneliness of a teenage kid who feels misunderstood and unloved; from the hatred of a racist who feels his nation has gone astray and left him behind; or the hatred and alienation of a man fired from his job at a TV news studio.
We showed our thirst for this kind of terrorism in our fascination with those serial killers whose crimes were designed to be sensational and to create publicity, designed to grant fame to the perpetrator. And while many would like for this fame to remain anonymous, equally it seems many yearned to be captured and to revel in their celebrity.
We offered celebrity to high school terrorists when we came together to grieve with the families of the children they slew. And in doing we unknowingly offered the promise of celebrity to would-be copy-cat school shooters. Now, with millions watching beheadings from the middle-east, what does an attention-grabber who is ready to end their life have to do to get noticed, to become famous? He (for they are almost all male) has to escalate. The new baseline is a live-on-television shooting.
A Dark Future for Domestic Terrorism
Are we are looking at the early days of a dark future of domestic terrorism driven not by the desire to promote a political agenda, but by the desire of an alienated individual to gain their fifteen minutes of fame? In the long sequence of school shootings, movie theater massacres, and now this most recent live-on-TV shooting, I fear we are seeing a new cultural norm in which a person about to suicide can achieve fame though accompanying murders…but their level of fame grows if they escalate both the publicity of their crime and the ability of their audience to relate to and to personalize their victims.
If there is merit in my thesis, then how can we respond in a way that will be helpful and will prevent escalation? The only way I can see is counter-intuitive to the American culture, and that is to turn off the TV, to switch of Twitter, to not pay attention to this kind of news. This is a very tough course of action to take, both because it flies in the face of everything that the American TV-and-internet-consumption culture has become, and also because it might seem disrespectful to those affected. Ignoring the spate of on-line petitions that follow in the wake of every tragedy, avoiding the temptation to “like” and promote every sympathetic social media posting might seem cold. But the way to end terrorism is to deny the terrorist his or her audience.
This is not to suggest that these acts should be without consequence. Anyone perpetrating them and surviving should meet with the full weight of the law. But to prosecute in a dramatic, public setting does not serve to punish. Rather it is to grant exactly what the murderer seeks, and to encourage copy-cats.
The reason terrorists use terror is that the fear implicit in the public response to their acts is vastly out of all rational proportion to the real danger. We can’t outlaw watching terrorist acts, but if we change our behavior and look away (leaving public employees to respond with appropriate force and/or politics), then the terrorist, just like the misbehaving child who wants attention, will eventually stop what has become unrewarding behavior. Similarly if we decide in our own individual ways to deny celebrity to those who perpetrate horrific violence and murder for their own glorification, others will come to see that such behavior is unrewarding and will hopefully not feel called to it.